Week in Review: Louisiana MMJ Program Appears Dead on Arrival, But Glimmer of Hope Remains

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By John Schroyer

News earlier this week that Louisiana will become the first state in the South to legalize medical marijuana sounded too good to be true.

In the end, that’s exactly what it might be.

Louisiana lawmakers approved a legalization bill on Monday and sent it over to Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has promised to sign it. But the one cultivation site and 10 dispensaries allowed under the measure likely won’t materialize unless supporters can push through major changes down the road.

The program is “unworkable and unlikely to ever be implemented,” said Tamar Todd, director of marijuana law and policy for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). “I don’t think it’s likely to be counted when you consider a tally of what states have adopted medical marijuana.”

That means there may not be any business opportunities under the bill as written – and therefore no access to medical cannabis for patients, as home growing is not allowed.

The main problem is that the measure requires a prescription for patients to be able to obtain MMJ, whereas the other 23 states where medical cannabis is legal only require a doctor’s recommendation.

That’s a significant difference, since marijuana is still on the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Schedule I list – which means doctors are prohibited from prescribing it. Physicians who do prescribe Schedule I narcotics can lose their licenses and be prosecuted under federal law.

So organizations such as DPA and the Marijuana Policy Project were ready earlier this week to write the bill off as a symbolic victory and nothing more.

But Louisiana State Sen. Fred Mills, the primary sponsor of the measure, has a plan.

“My thought process… is to issue (doctors) a separate prescribing license that would be specifically for medical marijuana,” Mills told Marijuana Business Daily. “It would be separately credentialed and separately permitted, and that way, if there would be any kind of infringement from a DEA standpoint, only that portion of the license would be in doubt or disputed.”

Mills, a former executive director of the Louisiana Board of Pharmacy, said he’s had experience with special permits in the past for physicians, which is where he got the idea. He said he’s also conferred with the current head of the board, who agreed that the state may be able to finagle such a solution through the upcoming rulemaking process for Louisiana’s MMJ system.

The idea is feasible, said Bob Capecchi, the Marijuana Policy Project’s director of state policies.

“If that’s the route he wants to go, and if that’s what he wants to push for in the rules and regs process, maybe this thing could work,” Capecchi said. “Stranger things have happened.”

Mills said that if he can’t make his plan work by the time the next legislative session rolls around in March 2016, he plans to bring the prescription vs. recommendation question up again.

Either way, Mills is likely to have plenty of political opposition. One example was a last-minute amendment on the House floor stipulating that only MMJ with “the lowest acceptable therapeutic level (of THC) available through scientifically accepted methods” can be cultivated and sold.

That line left a number of advocates scratching their heads.

“I honestly don’t even know what that level is,” said David Brown, a lobbyist and director of Sensible Marijuana Policy for Louisiana. “The current state of the science is we don’t even know where THC levels need to be in order to work in concert with CBD. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but I don’t think it makes us a CBD-only state, the way I read it.”

The upcoming rulemaking process could also expand the list of qualifying medical conditions for MMJ in Louisiana, Mills said. The bill passed this week only allows for patients with glaucoma and spastic quadriplegia, as well as chemotherapy patients, to use MMJ.

That means that even if the 10 dispensaries allowed can somehow open, the potential patient pool will be very, very small.

It will also likely be years before businesses can actually begin dispensing MMJ; even Mills himself, when pressed, estimated 18 to 24 months before the system is up and running, and that’s if everything goes smoothly.

The current measure is also so narrow that there will only be a handful of business opportunities, akin to the MMJ systems in Minnesota and New York. For one thing, all 10 dispensaries need to also be pharmacies in good standing with the state, and chances are good that they’ll be required to have $2 million in escrow to demonstrate their financial stability, depending on how the rulemaking process goes.

There also may not be a single business option for cultivation, since the lone grow site will be offered first to Louisiana State University and the Southern University Agricultural Centers. Only if those two turn down the option to grow cannabis will it be possible for a private cultivator to land the license.

The upshot is that though there’s still a long way to go, there’s reason to hope that a medical cannabis industry in the South could become a reality.

John Schroyer can be reached at johns@mjbizmedia.com